Thursday, May 26 2016

New poll looks at American attitudes towards Islam and Arab countries

A new poll looking at American attitudes towards Muslims and the Arab world has been published by the University of Maryland. The poll was carried out this month with a sample size of 737 adults who were asked questions on US foreign aid; the importance of American diplomacy in the Middle East; Iran’s nuclear programme; the recent embassy attacks in Libya and Egypt and America’s involvement in the conflict in Syria.

Some of the key findings are summarised below:

Attacks in Egypt and Libya

•  A majority of those polled said that the attacks against American diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya were supported only by extremist minorities - 63% for Egypt, 61% for Libya, respectively.

Views of Egypt and Libya

•  42%  favour reducing aid to Egypt whilst 29% want to stop it altogether and 25% want to keep aid at the same levels. Only 1% want to increase it. The study states that “When this finding is compared to two very similar questions asked in June 2012 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, it appears that the majority preferring to lower aid to Egypt has grown significantly.”

•  The questions on aid to Egypt also illustrates a partisan divide, with 85% of Republicans expressing a desire to lower aid compared to 64% of Democrats.

America’s role in the Middle East

•  46% of respondents favoured maintaining current levels of diplomacy in the region. 34% said the US should decrease its diplomatic involvement, and 14% said diplomatic involvement should be increased.

•  Support for promoting democracy has cooled slightly since the Arab Spring - 50% agreed with the statement, “I would want to see a country become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose US policies”- down from 57% in April 2011.

•  The poll also illustrates that people see the uprisings in the Middle East as different from before. Only 15% polled said they saw it as ‘ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy’ compared to 45% in April 2011. 38% now believe that the uprisings are about ‘Islamist groups seeking political power’, up from 15% in April 2011. Most, however, view it as about both of these things equally. The report states that “Presumably this shift is prompted by the different character of the recent uprisings as compared to those during the Arab spring.”

Views of Arabs and Muslims

•  42% thought that “violent conflict is bound to keep happening” between ‘Islam and the West’, whilst a majority - 53% - agreed with the statement “it is possible for us to find common ground.” This figure is down on previous years (59% in 2011 and 68% after the 9/11 attacks in 2001).

•  Again, opinions are divided along partisan lines - 60% of Republicans agree that “violent conflict is bound to keep happening” whilst 68% of Democrats agree that “it is possible for us to find common ground.”

•  51% think that the tensions between Islam and the West are more about conflicts of power and interests (down from 57% in 2011) compared to 43% of people who think that tensions are down to differences of religion and culture (up from 38% in 2011).

•  Perceptions of Arab people in general are divided with 49% of respondents expressing a favorable view and 47% an unfavorable view.

•  Views of Muslim people in general are evenly divided at 48%, similar to a year ago.

Possible Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear programme

•  55% of respondents said that an Israeli strike on Iran would worsen the US’s “military and strategic position in the Middle East.” 63% favour discouraging Israel from launching a military attack on Iran.

The Syrian conflict

•  A majority of respondents favoured “Increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria” (60%) and “Enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria” (59%) while support for supplying arms to anti-government groups; bombing Syrian air defences and sending troops into Syria was substantially lower at 22%, 21% and 13% respectively.

The poll sadly reflects a high level of hostility and distrust towards Islam and Muslims; the figure on viewing Muslims unfavourably - 48% is shockingly high, almost accounting for 1 in 2 Americans. The results of this recent poll are not too dissimilar from those of the 2009 Gallup survey, ‘Religious Perceptions in America’, which found that 53% of Americans hold an unfavourable view of Islam. The downwards trend in the view that common ground can be found between the West and Islam is similarly worrying, but concurs with recent findings from the Pew Research Centre which found an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in the US.

Some of the questions and findings are also similar to those found in an opinion poll conducted by YouGov last month which touched on the same subjects. For example, majorities agreed with the idea that the anti-American violence which followed the anti-Islam video on Youtube, Innocence of Muslims, was supported by a minority of Muslims. The partisan variations on attitudes to things such as aid towards MENA countries and attitudes towards West-Muslim conflict/coexistence were also mirrored in the YouGov poll.

With respect to the higher levels of hostility amongst Republicans towards Muslims illustrated in the polling data, as we have previously pointed out, there are a number of reports which have been published in recent years - Smearcasting (2008) and Fear Inc (2011) - which have identified members of the Republican Party who contribute to Islamophobia in the US, as well as detailing Islamophobes who have tried to influence Republican Party policy. The renowned Islamophobe and founder of the Stop the Islamization of America, Pamela Geller, for example has been involved in the Republican-aligned Tea Party movement in the US. An Observer investigation in 2010 found that the movement had developed links with the English Defence League as well as other anti-Islam movements in Europe.

The full report from the University of Maryland can be found here.

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